Haven't been feeling especially inspired to write this week so I dug through my archives, sanitized, and edited this journal entry I wrote in February. Reading over it makes me miss the little base where I spent my first four months of the tour.
I’m not completely sure how many firefights we’ve been in to this point. The ones that we participate in while we’re on the base are not really a big deal to me because we’re generally not the target of those attacks due to our proximity to the village below. We get to participate because the other firebases (typically Restrepo lately) in the area are getting attacked.
However many gunfights we’ve been in, the frequency of attacks has been increasing recently. We’d gotten some intel that some foreign fighters had pushed into the area with the intention of hitting us as hard as they could for about a week or so...and hitting us they have been, though with no friendly casualties to this point.
Sometimes you get so used to the shooting you don’t pay much attention to it, and not just when you’re "safe" inside the confines of your compound. As part of a security patrol the other day, we stopped at the local lumber mill, which consists of a house with a large, partly covered porch where they do the cutting with an old bandsaw. This province used to have a thriving timber industry, which has since been shut down by the government for fear the proceeds were being used to fund insurgent operations – a not unreasonable fear given this area is considered “insurgent central”. The anthropologist embedded with us for the time being thought talking to the young men at the lumber mill would be a good chance to get some information about the lumber industry’s history and their hopes for the future. I, on the other hand, thought stopping at the mill would be a good chance to get to talk to some of the people who shoot at us in their spare time. I'll mention that our "default position" toward all young males in this specific area is to consider them as active or passive insurgency supporters.
Unfortunately, due to our ANA commander’s meddling in the conversation (I thought he would know that if we wanted his answers to the questions we would just have asked him in the confines of our base during our nightly discussions, but apparently this was another assumption I should not have made.), the domination of the conversation by the head local guy once he arrived, the ineptitude of the particular interpreter I’m stuck with at this point, and the natural reticence of the local people, I’m afraid our anthropologist didn’t get all the information he could have hoped for in a conversation lasting more than 30 minutes.
And so it was that the most interesting part of our brief stay at the lumber mill occurred about 15 minutes into the conversation when a firefight erupted at Firebase Restrepo about 500 meters west up the hill from us. The firefight was interesting not because of what happened, but because of what did not happen – namely, no one, not the local men, anthropologist, marines, or ANA made much of an acknowledgment of the bullets and mortars flying other than an occasional glance up the hill. 500 meters is not all that far away, but of the ten of us sitting and talking no one really considered moving or altering his immediate plans in any way, including myself, though I did begin to pay a bit more attention to my radio. Now that's multi-tasking when you can make sense of a garbled radio blaring in one ear, while also making sense of a translation in broken English with your other ear. One might think that we would have or should have done something, but in reality there is little we can do to support that post unless the fires are coming from an area of the valley where we can reach with our guns, which is rare, so in a situation where we're otherwise engaged we don't worry about it too much. As for our own safety, even if a coordinated attack were planned from multiple firing positions, the odds of us being shot at while on a visit with the local people are low. Part of the insurgents’ hold over the local people is due to intimidation, but they don’t normally take to shooting into crowded areas just to get at us. And so I sat there with the rest of them outside on the porch drinking chai, calmly listening in on the conversation as mortars fell about 800 meters away and the sound of heavy guns reverberated in the air.
I suppose I know now how the people in Beirut felt for all those years during their civil war. One can used to pretty much anything it seems. Just keep doing what you're doing. Maybe some day the Army will figure out how to kill the guys that shoot at them everyday up at Restrepo....